A New China Strategy

By Aaron L. Friedberg

As in other parts of the world, President Obama has badly misplayed America’s hand in Asia. Serious as they undoubtedly are, however, Washington’s recent tactical missteps, inept messaging, and fluctuating attention are only aspects of a larger problem. The fact is that the entire U.S. approach to dealing with Asia and, in particular, with China, is outdated, dysfunctional, and increasingly dangerous. If the next President does not re-examine the assumptions on which present policies are based and initiate major course corrections, he or she will face further erosion in American power and influence and a rising risk of confrontation and armed conflict.

The United States needs a new China strategy, one that is more forthright in acknowledging the extent and severity of the challenge posed by Beijing’s growing strength and broadening ambitions, more forceful and determined in defending U.S. interests and values, and more skillful and farsighted in integrating all of the instruments of American national power and working with like-minded friends and allies.

With occasional variations in tone and emphasis, successive U.S. Administrations have pursued a broadly similar, two-part strategy toward China for a least the past quarter century. First and most obviously, the United States has engaged the Chinese government, and the Chinese people, through a mix of summits and dialogues, trade and investment, educational, scientific, and cultural cooperation, and “people-to-people” exchanges. The aims of this half of American strategy, in turn, have been twofold. On the one hand, the United States has sought to encourage China to become what the George W. Bush Administration referred to as a “responsible stakeholder” in the existing liberal international order, causing its leaders to see their interests as lying in maintaining and strengthening that order rather than seeking to fundamentally alter or overthrow it. On the other hand, U.S. policymakers have also harbored the hope that, in time, by promoting the growth of a new middle class, strengthening civil society, and spreading ideas about the virtues of accountable government, a freer press and an independent judiciary, engagement would strengthen tendencies toward political liberalization within China itself.

While engaging China across a variety of fronts, Washington over the past two decades has also exerted increasing efforts to balance Beijing's growing power. This dimension of American strategy, too, has had several constituent parts, including reinforcing U.S. forward-deployed forces, strengthening relationships with traditional allies like Japan, Australia, and the Philippines, and working to build new quasi-alliance ties to others in Asia (such as India and Singapore) that share concerns about the possible implications of China’s rapid rise for their security. The purpose of all these activities has been to preserve stability, deter aggression, counter attempts at coercion, and buy time for engagement to work its soothing and ultimately transformative effects on Beijing.

In the past several years a number of troubling events and emerging trends have combined to raise questions about the efficacy and continued viability of both halves of American strategy. Thanks in no small measure to its ability to access U.S. markets, capital, and technology, China has grown far richer and stronger since the end of the Cold War.  Instead of growing more liberal, however, its politics have become more repressive and more militantly nationalistic. Following his elevation to the top leadership posts in late 2012, Xi Jinping moved to strengthen the Party-state’s grip on society, cracking down on dissent, further tightening controls on the internet and the activities of non-governmental organizations, and seeking to stem the spread of “subversive” ideas in China’s universities and culture. As part of this effort, Xi has initiated an ideological campaign that emphasizes the importance of standing up to foreign foes in order to reestablish Chinese greatness.

The entire U.S. approach to dealing with Asia and, in particular, with China, is outdated, dysfunctional, and increasingly dangerous.

Even as it seeks to consolidate its power at home, the CCP regime has become more open in challenging key elements of the existing order in Asia. China’s increasingly forceful attempts to assert its claims over most of the waters and resources off its coasts are only the most visible manifestation of this tendency. Beijing has also intensified its longstanding opposition to U.S. alliances, arguing that these are not simply archaic manifestations of an outdated “Cold War mentality” but a dangerous, destabilizing influence. Xi’s statements to the effect that Asia’s affairs should be left to “the people of Asia” make clear his vision for a region in which America’s presence and influence have dramatically diminished and in which China will finally be able to emerge as the preponderant power. Nor is this merely a matter of empty talk and wishful thinking. In recent years Beijing has set out to build a set of interlocking political institutions, trade agreements, banks, and massive infrastructure development projects that would put it at the center of a new Eurasian order, one dominated by China’s influence, serving its interests, and operating according to its rules.

Engagement has thus far failed to transform China into a status quo state, still less a liberal democracy. Meanwhile, since the early 1990s, the dramatic expansion of the nation’s military capabilities, fueled by its rapid economic growth, has made balancing an ever more costly and challenging task.  China’s nuclear force modernization programs have begun to raise questions about the long-term viability of Washington’s extended deterrent guarantees. At the same time, as discussed in chapter 5.2, Beijing’s increasingly sophisticated and capable “anti-access/area denial” network of sensors and missiles is raising doubts about the ability of the United States to defend its allies by projecting conventional military power into the Western Pacific. At the lower end of the spectrum of possible future conflicts, China’s growing air, naval, and maritime patrol forces are also giving it new options for enforcing its territorial claims by sustaining a military presence in the waters and airspace off its coasts. Beijing’s interest in acquiring aircraft carriers and its building of small forward bases on man-made islands offer further evidence of its intentions in this regard.

China’s leaders appear at this point to be motivated by a combustible mix of arrogance and insecurity. Following the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, many Chinese observers concluded that, even as their own country continued on its steep upward climb, the United States had entered into a period of accelerated and likely irreversible relative decline. Some in the leadership no doubt retain a healthy respect for American resilience, and Washington’s talk of a “pivot” to Asia in 2011 and 2012 may initially have given them pause. But the fact that Beijing has become more rather than less assertive in the past three years suggests that Xi Jinping and his colleagues are not impressed by the Obama Administration’s proclamations of resolve. At the same time, however, Xi’s crackdowns on dissent and corruption and his efforts to implement reforms aimed at sustaining economic growth suggest he is well aware that the regime faces rising challenges to its legitimacy and continued rule. This awareness has no doubt been heightened by public unhappiness over the recent bursting of China’s stock market bubble.  A more aggressive external posture is a way of locking in gains against a distracted and weakened opponent while at the same time rallying domestic political support through the use of nationalist rhetoric and showy displays of military prowess. Especially if China’s growth slows sharply, such behavior is likely to become more common.

Even as it seeks to consolidate its power at home, the CCP regime has become more open in challenging key elements of the existing order in Asia.

These worrisome tendencies have been visible for some time, but it is only in the past two or three years that their importance has come to be widely recognized. As a result, albeit somewhat belatedly, a debate over the adequacy and future of U.S. China strategy has finally commenced. While a complete analysis is beyond the scope of this essay, three positions in the current debate warrant brief discussion.[45] 

Some observers (and, in particular, many professional “China hands” and former government officials) argue that there is no need for anything more than minor, tactical adjustments in U.S. policy. In this view, reports of increased Chinese assertiveness and an impending shift in the balance of regional military power are greatly exaggerated. Moreover, even if it has not yet produced desired changes in the character of China’s domestic political system, engagement has created a strong confluence of interest between Washington and Beijing. Rather than threatening this convergence with talk of possible conflict and needless efforts to further widen the already substantial gap in military power that separates China from the United States and its allies, American policymakers should rededicate themselves to dialogue and the pursuit of mutually beneficial cooperation.[46]

Adherents of the enhanced engagement approach understate the severity of the challenge posed by an increasingly capable and ambitious China. By contrast, those who favor what can only be labeled a policy of appeasement exaggerate the imminence and inevitability of China's gaining regional military superiority while at the same time underestimating the likely extent of its aims should it succeed in doing so. In recent essays, several scholars have suggested that the United States strike a “grand bargain” with China, accommodating its growing power, granting it a sphere of influence, and acceding to its wishes on at least some key issues, in particular the fate of Taiwan.[47] Putting aside the moral and political objections to such a policy, this approach assumes that China will be able to sustain its present upward trajectory, something that is by no means obvious. Nor is it evident why, if Beijing believes its power will continue to grow, it should accept comparatively minor adjustments in the status quo that would still permit the United States to retain its position as the dominant regional player.

Finally in this regard, some analysts make a case for a return to something resembling a Cold War-style strategy of containment. If engagement has empowered and emboldened Beijing without taming or transforming it, then perhaps the United States should greatly constrict its economic dealings with China and accelerate efforts to subvert the current regime through political warfare, while pouring vastly increased resources into its own armed forces and mobilizing its friends and allies to do the same.[48] 

As with appeasement, although for different reasons, trying to shift to a strategy of outright containment at this point would be premature and self-defeating. Critics warn that an unremitting hardline approach risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing Beijing to adopt a more openly hostile and aggressive posture more quickly than might otherwise have been the case. Even if worsening relations and intensified competition are inevitable, many U.S. friends and allies (and significant portions of the American public and the nation’s elites) are not yet convinced of it. For this reason, and because of the vast economic interests at stake, political support for containment is presently lacking, both at home and abroad.

Engagement has thus far failed to transform China into a status quo state, still less a liberal democracy.

If enhanced engagement, appeasement, and containment are all non-starters, the most plausible alternative is “better balancing.” Such an approach follows from a recognition that, after more than two decades, current policy has failed to achieve its objectives. Rather than making slow but steady progress toward liberalization, China’s domestic political system has mutated into a new and, to date, evidently quite resilient form of authoritarianism, one that combines the dynamism of the market, the repressive capacities of a determined, brutal, and technologically sophisticated state, and the mass mobilizing potential of nationalist propaganda. At the same time, far from gradually accommodating itself to the rules and constraints of the existing international system, Beijing now seeks to alter it in significant ways. 

The character of China’s domestic regime and the nature of its external behavior are linked. Any rising power would seek a greater say in the affairs of its region and the wider world, but an authoritarian China does so in ways that reflect its domestic insecurity, contempt for liberal principles, and irreducible suspicion toward the country that Beijing regards (not without reason) as the current system’s primary architect and beneficiary.

This assessment has important implications for the ways in which U.S. policymakers define American objectives. In the near term, they will have little choice but to frame their goals in largely defensive terms, doing what is necessary to protect an open regional order and strengthening the U.S. position on which it rests, even at the cost of heightened tensions with Beijing. 

In the somewhat longer run, the evolution of China’s domestic political system cannot be a matter of indifference to American strategists. While U.S. policymakers may have been overly optimistic in assessing China’s developmental trajectory, they were right to emphasize the importance of the character of its regime, and not only for the well-being of its people. If China continues to grow richer and stronger but remains under one-party authoritarian rule, the prospects for genuine accommodation with the United States or other democratic powers will dwindle, while the challenges to U.S. interests and to regional stability will intensify. Instead of downplaying the gap in values that separates the two regimes, Washington needs to find effective ways to reintroduce the topics of human rights and political liberty into its bilateral exchanges with Beijing, and to reinvigorate its efforts to encourage tendencies toward meaningful reform when these reemerge, as they inevitably will.

With these ends in view, the most urgent task confronting the next Administration will be to bolster the balancing side of the strategic portfolio: taking additional steps to deter aggression or attempts at coercion by preventing further erosion in the regional balance of military power. This requires, first and foremost, blunting and countering the PLA’s A2/AD capabilities. Even in a severe crisis, China’s leaders must never be deluded into thinking that they have the option of launching a disarming conventional first strike against U.S. and allied forces and bases in the Western Pacific. In conjunction with friends and allies, Washington also needs to enhance its capacity for countering Beijing’s territorial claims by conducting continuous presence and freedom of navigation operations through contested waters and airspace. The two Pacific powers are now engaged in a protracted military competition, one in which, for the moment, China has the initiative and the United States is seeking cost-effective ways to respond. While bolstering deterrence, American planners need to act so as to shift that rivalry away from areas that play to Chinese strengths (such as mass producing conventional ballistic missiles) and back into those domains (such as undersea warfare) where the United States and its allies are likely to have enduring technical and operational advantages. 

Intensified balancing must be accompanied by adjustments in engagement.   American policymakers should continue to seek cooperation with China in those discrete areas where it may be possible, but they need to take a realistic, transactional approach and not succumb to the pleasing illusion that more dialogue with the current regime, perhaps coupled with a few well-timed concessions, will help “build trust,” create a “common strategic narrative,” or construct a “Pacific community” of convergent interests.[49]

China’s leaders appear at this point to be motivated by a combustible mix of arrogance and insecurity.

As regards the economic dimension of engagement (see chapter 5.1), Washington must beware the temptation to use economic instruments to compensate for a lack of options in other domains (imposing trade sanctions in retaliation for cyber espionage against government computer networks, for example). At the same time, American policymakers must act to ensure that economic policy serves the larger purposes of national strategy. China is not just another trading partner; it is a geopolitical rival and potential military opponent of the United States that has bent and often broken the rules of the international trading system to achieve its own economic and strategic ends by (among other measures) subsidizing exports, restricting imports and stealing technology on a truly massive scale. Beijing’s burgeoning network of free-trade agreements also threatens to divert trade at U.S. expense.

In addition to pursuing its own free-trade agreements with friends and allies in Asia and Europe, the United States can narrow its overall trade deficit (and reduce its indebtedness to China) by taking full advantage of the opportunities presented by the revolution in domestic energy production to boost exports while adjusting its macroeconomic policies to reduce the long-term imbalance between national savings and investment. But such broad-gauge measures must be accompanied by more specifically targeted policies designed to restrict Beijing’s access to strategically sensitive technologies and stem the hemorrhaging of intellectual property by imposing costs on Chinese entities that have thus far paid no price for their activities.

Despite its evident importance, America’s longstanding, mixed approach to dealing with China was not the product of a coherent, comprehensive strategic planning process, nor has it ever been the subject of a serious, presidential-level interagency review. Instead the various elements of U.S. strategy emerged separately and evolved largely independently over time. While the resulting amalgam turned out to be tolerably coherent and was arguably adequate for a time, this is clearly no longer the case.

The persistence of present policy owes more to inertia than to deliberate choice. Whoever is elected President in November 2016 should therefore begin with a frank assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the current approach and conduct an open-minded examination of the potential costs, benefits and risks of the available alternatives. This process could usefully be modeled on the 1953 Solarium Project, in which the newly elected Eisenhower Administration organized teams of experts to explore the economic, military, and diplomatic dimensions of three candidate strategies for the conduct of relations with the Soviet Union.[50] If history is any guide, the opening months of a new presidency will offer the best opportunity for a thorough, thoughtful strategic review. The alternative is to wait until a crisis shatters prevailing assumptions, setting off a scramble for hastily contrived and potentially ill-considered options.

(45) For more details, see Aaron L. Friedberg, “The Debate Over U.S. China Strategy,” Survival 57:3 (June-July 2015).

(46) See, for example, Jeffrey A. Bader, “Changing China Policy: Are We In Search of Enemies?” Brookings China Strategy Paper no. 1 (June 2015).

(47) See Charles L. Glaser, “A U.S.-China Grand Bargain?” International Security 39:4 (Spring 2015), pp. 49-90; Michael D. Swaine, “Beyond American Predominance in the Western Pacific: The Need for a Stable U.S.-China Balance of Power,” Carnegie Endowment, April 20, 2015.

(48) Making the case for what he calls “containment lite” is Joseph A. Bosco, “America’s Asia Policy: The New Reality,” The Diplomat, June 23, 2015.

(49) On the latter two concepts see Kevin Rudd, U.S.-China 21: The Future of U.S.-China Relations Under Xi Jinping (John F. Kennedy School of Government, April 2015), p. 24; and Henry A. Kissinger, “Avoiding A U.S.-China Cold War,” Washington Post, January 14, 2011.

(50) Regarding Solarium, see Robert R. Bowie and Richard H. Immerman, Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy (Oxford University Press, 1998) and William B. Pickett, ed., George F. Kennan and the Origins of Eisenhower’s New Look: An Oral History of Project Solarium (Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, 2004).